Recently, a reader sent me a link to an article in the Harvard Business Review by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, called Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership. She said it was one of the best articles on women in leadership that she'd read in awhile, and I have to agree. It argues that the "glass ceiling" metaphor that is so often used to describe the lack of women at the very top levels of leadership is misleading:
"Times have changed, however, and the glass ceiling metaphor is now more wrong than right. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The fact that there have been female chief executives, university presidents, state governors, and presidents of nations gives the lie to that charge. At the same time, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and midlevel positions. They do not. The image of a transparent obstruction also suggests that women are being misled about their opportunities, because the impediment is not easy for them to see from a distance. But some impediments are not subtle. Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, the glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges that women can face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage."
The authors advance an alternative metaphor, that of a labyrinth:
"Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one’s progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead. It is this meaning that we intend to convey. For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected."
I think this is a very powerful metaphor that aptly captures the experience of being a woman trying to work up to positions of leadership. It is not a perfect metaphor, of course. For instance, it does not capture the fact that everyone who aspires to a position of leadership faces a labyrinth. No one has a direct path. Some people face extra challenges and different people are handed maps of differing quality at the outset, though.
Imperfect or not, this article and its metaphor showed up at an apt time in my life. I've recently realized that I'm lost in the labyrinth. For the first time in my career, I face a gender-related obstacle that I have no idea how to navigate past. Specifically, I am caught in what the article refers to as the "double bind" in which behaving in traditionally female ways ("communal" behaviors, such as being compassionate, sensitive to others, and helpful) are seen as weak and not leader-like while behaving in more traditionally male ways ("agentic" behaviors, such as being aggressive, ambitious, and forceful) are seen as damaging in women, and therefore also not leader-like.
I have been well aware of the double bind for many years. I have watched other women navigate it, some more successfully than others. I have developed strategies for navigating it myself, balancing on the razor thin line between being overly communal and overly agentic.
I cannot go into the details here, but I am 100% sure that I have stumbled in this attempt recently, and my effectiveness in my current position is compromised. It almost goes without saying that I think my potential for future advancement is also compromised.
I am utterly unsure of what to do next. None of the articles I have ever read on the subject present a viable solution to the double bind. They just note that it exists and causes problems for ambitious women.
(As an aside: I also really enjoyed the recent New York Times article by Stephanie Coontz about why gender equality has stalled, but wished it would have more thoroughly addressed the extent to which having to deal with crap like the double bind leads women to decide that pushing to stay in the workforce after having children just isn't worth the effort, and also the extent to which the subtle drain on self-confidence that this and other double standards create helps tip mothers away from the workforce.)
At this point, I find myself wondering what I even want. Do I want a map showing the way past this obstacle? Or do I instead want a labyrinth escape plan? That is, should I try to find a way to navigate through the double bind, at least temporarily, and continue on my current path, or should I listen to the little voice in my head that is telling me that the prize at the end of this particular labyrinth isn't worth the struggle, and work on finding a way to opt out and forge a new path to a different prize?
I honestly don't know which option to choose. On one hand, the double bind angers me, and I somewhat stubbornly do not want to let it block my progress. But recently, I've started to wonder if that stubbornness might be keeping me from taking the risks that could lead me to a better path. It is not an easy decision, but it is one I can no longer ignore.